Cannon airmen deliver valentines to veterans

USAF photo: Airman 1st Class Evelyn Chavez Staff Sgt. Christopher Sanderfur, 27th Special Operations Security Forces Squadron, righ, poses with a veteran for a photo during the Valentines for Veterans visit on Feb. 13.

By Senior Airman Thomas Trower: 27th SOW Public Affairs

Veterans of World War II through the Vietnam War were joined by an unusual group of valentines as airmen stationed here visited patients of the Thomas E. Creek Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Amarillo, Texas on Feb. 13.

“I would say we saw about 60 residents,” said trip organizer Capt. Nicholas Sammons, of the 3rd Special Operation Squadron. “We started out on their main floor visiting with the nursing home residents. We swapped stories with them but mainly listened to their exploits ranging from flying off of aircraft carriers around (the Battle of) Midway to trying not to freeze to death at the Battle of the Bulge. It definitely gave me a better perspective for when I feel the need to complain.”

Fourteen 27th Special Operations Wing airmen took the three-and-a-half-hour round trip drive to the center, which is the main facility for the Amarillo VA Health Care System that serves approximately 79,000 veterans throughout the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, eastern New Mexico, and southern Kansas with general medical and surgical inpatient care and specialty care.

“We are always glad to have visitors,” said retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Carl Gerlach, a resident of the center’s nursing home with 35 years of military service. “I appreciate the airmen coming to visit us today.”

The airmen roamed the medical center halls to visit patients. The Cannon Youth Center and Child Development Centers spent time earlier in the week creating Valentine’s Day cards for the volunteers to deliver to the patients.

Retired Navy Senior Master Chief Jerry Keaton was one of the patients visited by the airmen. He entered the Navy in 1958 at the age of 17 and served on submarines, other ships and at communication stations, he said. He retired 29 years later with four years in Vietnam on his service record.

“It’s great to see new faces,” said the former Naval radio operator. “It makes (my military service) all worthwhile to see I haven’t been forgotten by current servicemembers.”

Some patients couldn’t read too well, so volunteers read their valentines to them, said Capt. Sammons. Other patients were resting so airmen left balloons and cookies for them to find when they awoke.

The group continued through the center until they reached their final group of patients in the intensive care ward. Care had to be taken by the volunteers to ensure the rooms remained sterile environments to protect the compromised immune systems of the patients.

At the end of the visit, the volunteers were shown to the medical center’s small museum by Facility Director Andrew Welch. Inside, airmen viewed a memorial display for Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas Creek, a local Marine posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in February 1969 in Vietnam. The day they visited the center marked the 40th anniversary from the day Cpl. Creek shouted his final words, “I’ve got it, Mac!” and saved the lives of his fellow Marines by rolling onto an enemy grenade that had been thrown into his gully during a firefight.

Then-mayor J. Ernest Stroud declared April 22, 1970, as Thomas E. Creek Day in Amarillo.

“The mentality behind volunteering is not to gain something for yourself, but to give to someone else,” stressed Capt. Sammons. “However, for me, there has seldom been a time where there wasn’t a significant benefit on a personal level. Our World War II vets won’t be with us much longer and the stories these soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have to share are the real deal. You can glean a lot from books, but to hear their stories firsthand is a different experience altogether.”